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Doing Less With More 

With the Hearst Tower nearly completed, many people have asked my opinion of Charlotte's newest uptown skyscraper. I don't like it: with the exception of one new plaza on North Tryon Street next to the Mint Museum of Craft and Design (which I think is going to be a very fine urban space), the tower symbolizes what's wrong with contemporary architecture in Charlotte.

Aesthetics can be subjective: I like one shape; you like another. But there are deeper reasons to be dissatisfied with this multi-million dollar exercise in corporate chic. To understand why, a little history is in order.

In the 1920s, a taciturn German architect named Ludwig Mies van der Rohe uttered three famous words: "Less is more," summing up the new century's desire to shed the suffocating mantle of Victorian ornamentation. Higher and better results, van der Rohe believed, would be achieved by paring form back to its essence.

Victorians decorated anything and everything, from household goods encrusted with swags and swirls, to great machines decked out in a variety of "tastes," from Egyptian to "Gothic"; and up to the scale of buildings themselves.

The Templeton Carpet Factory in Glasgow, Scotland, is one famous example of this trend. Within its walls, workers (including young children) labored many hours a day in mind-numbing and backbreaking work for subsistence wages. This harsh lifestyle was a common story for working families (as it was in the Carolinas) but this particular factory was no anonymous brick shed, whose squalid image might have matched the company's labor practices. This building was designed as a copy of a great Venetian palace from the 14th century, created with the clear intention of disguising the human suffering within.

In the aftermath of World War I, artists and architects rebelled against this use of design to cover up the evils and inequalities of society. Combined with repulsion against the decadence of the outdated, hollow monarchies and empires that had dragged the continent into "the war to end all wars," the new imperative was to sweep away all symbols and appearances of the "bad old days," and stride forward to a bold, brave new world.

Thus modernism was born -- a clean, bright new landscape where buildings and cities would rise anew from the rubble of the old world. Minimalism became the heady new wine, with clean lines, crisp forms with not a single superfluous decoration.

The rise and fall of modernism during the 20th century is well documented (and visible in Charlotte's center city). But in Europe, the aphorism "less is more" has recently been revised to "doing more with less." This twist gives an energy-saving ethos to contemporary design; in terms of energy efficiency and constructional requirements, major European buildings are generally built to higher standards than American equivalents. Legislation pushes architects to be more inventive.

In the States, architects often complain that the design task for large buildings has been reduced to creating "external wallpaper" to clad generic structures. Many decisions about the form and systems of the building are made by other professions, usually using standard (read: outdated) solutions. Among architects there is little interest in green technologies, more humane office spaces, or "hi-tech" materials. An honorable exception is Salisbury architect Karen Alexander, whose Center for the Environment building at Catawba College is exemplary.

In their defense, architects argue their clients won't pay for anything above the norm. But Charlotte is wealthier now than ever. It's richer that most European cities its size. How come European architects can produce more adventurous and sustainable buildings? Are all European clients enlightened patrons? Are Euro designers better than Americans? Of course not.

The real reason is that European countries expect higher standards of technical performance. They aren't as affluent as America, so their buildings must become more cost-efficient. Being cost-efficient is not the same as being cheap. This kind of cost management takes the less-visible technical and human costs of a building's operation over the longterm into account. Dealing with these more complex criteria forces European professionals to be more inventive about environmental design, and this shows itself in the form and materials of buildings.

In America, by contrast, it's hard for architects to push advanced design. Short-term economics rule with a rod of iron. Considerations of new materials, environmental technologies or workplace ethics are not encouraged. So, architects concentrate on ways to dress up standardized buildings, and feel immense pressure to come up with eye-catching gimmicks and create a flashy appearance that outdoes the competition. The emphasis, in other words, is on style, not substance.

Hence the superficial shape-mongering and cross-dressing of the Hearst Tower, with its "manly" wide shoulders and narrow waist combined with a flapper's fancy headdress of filigree and glittery baubles. The large concrete panels, with their vaguely Gothic, churchified points and angles, add one more discordant visual note in the fevered search for originality.

By contrast, the building's skin could have been lightweight panels with self-regulating shading devices to reduce heating and cooling costs. Depending on orientation, louvers and other green technologies could be employed to induce a natural variety of appearances on the different faces of the building. Visual richness would arise organically instead of by inventing silly shapes. For a comparison, check out the Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt, Germany. ( Imagine a truly world-class building in our city!

If the Hearst Tower is the best we can do with all our wealth -- and at least one local critic has praised the structure extravagantly -- it's a sad reflection on our standards. I call it "Doing Less with More." *

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